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Mississippi Lawsuit Says Charter Schools Are Unconstitutionally Funded

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A civil rights organization has filed a lawsuit in Mississippi arguing that charter schools there are unconstitutionally funded. 

Charter schools are public schools—in that they receive public money—but they are run by individuals or groups and overseen by appointed nonprofit boards separate from the traditional district system.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven parents from Jackson. It says that because charter schools are not overseen by either local or state boards of education, they are constitutionally prohibited from receiving public money.

In some ways this argument echoes one that was made successfully in Washington State, when its supreme court struck down the state's charter law last September. (Lawmakers have since passed a retooled law so charters are back up and running there for the time being.)

"I would expect to see more of these lawsuits in the future," said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "I think [Washington] will inspire people to reexamine litigation to stop charters and inform the arguments they make. The big question is whether they can make those arguments fit the state they're in."

The Mississippi suit further claims that it's unconstitutional to require local districts to share property tax money with schools they don't run.

Although Mississippi has had a charter law on the books since 2010, the first charter school wasn't approved to open until after lawmakers revamped the law in 2013. Two schools have since opened in Jackson with more on their way.

In addition to other things, the 2013 law created a specialized statewide board to approve and oversee charters. Its members are appointed, not elected. Such boards have been pushed as a best practice by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (authorizer being the term used for groups that have been given authority under state law to approve the opening of new charter schools and close poorly performing schools).

Washington is another state that adopted a single, statewide authorizing board, although traditional districts can also become authorizers under state law.

Washington's charter law was also challenged on the grounds that charter schools were not entitled to public money they were receiving because they were not overseen directly by elected boards. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the challengers last September, effectively outlawing charter schools until the legislature passed a bill to change the funding source for charters and to include a tad more elected oversight of charters, among other things.  

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